Matsuo Basho, Japan’s renown haiku master of the 17th century had nothing to say of politics. Yes, nothing at all.
This may seem surprising for Basho was born in Iga Province which was known for its Ninja traditions. And, it is said, because of their Samurai background, and the family name, Matsuo, the family was accorded a farm.
Matsuo had brothers and sisters. We may guess the farm was not so large, for Matsuo (he was not Basho yet) left the ox and the plow and served Yoshitada Todo whose father was Todo Shinshichiro, a samurai general in charge of the Iga region. Matsuo’s master, Yoshitada had an affinity for poetry, and perhaps that is how Matsuo got his start. But Yoshitada died and Matsuo went to Kyoto to study.
By the age of 28, Matsuo compiled a book of haiku verse called Kai Oi (Shell Matching), which he dedicated to the Ueno Tenjingu Shinto Shrine. Soon after he left for Edo, capital to the ruling Shogun, Tokugawa Ietsuna . Like a child in a candy store, he immersed himself in the sights and sounds of the bustling Nihonbashi District, with its theater, music, performers, and exotic food stalls. In time he gathered students who came to him for instruction.
Enough, he said. And so he moved to the quieter Fukagawa District, across the Sumida River to a simple hut where he was given a banana as a housewarming gift. In time the banana grew to a tree. Battered by the wind, its leaves sometimes tattered, this otherwise useless tree provided some shade.
Fame follows Matsuo. Haiku are written, students gather. In time the banana plant becomes a tree. The banana tree is like me, Matsuo said. And that is how he became Matsuo Basho, “Matsuo the Banana”, or as he himself would say, a useless banana, blown to and fro by the wind, good for little, but to give shade.
How less political can one be.
Let me be an observer of life, he said. Let me listen and see what I hear. Haiku has its roots in Taoism, Buddhism, and Shintoism. It is an art form which attempts to express ideas in a simple verse form consisting of seventeen syllables. No more, no less, though sometimes Basho would stretch or break this rule.
This would inspire what is perhaps Basho’s greatest haiku.
An old pond, a from jumps in, the sound of water, Aha!
古池 蛙飛び込む 水の音
This is not to say that Basho did not speak of distant politics and war. He admired loyalty. He admired lost cause, but he found melancholy in such loss. Thus, when thinking of General Sanemori who died in battle in 1183, he wrote the following haiku.
How piteous! Beneath the warrior’s helmet A cricket cries.
むざんや な甲の下の きりぎりす
muzan ya na/ kabuto no shita no/ kirigirisu
One almost wonders, if Basho thought, what is the point? What is the point of politics, to those who are born on a farm, to those who put down their swords, and take up the pen to write a poem?
This post was written in January of 2012 in the midst of the impeachment of President Donald Trump. The author expresses no opinion on the current political situation.